Mixing the old with the new, The Force Awakens adds a thoughtful, thrilling, fun and finessed chapter to the Star Wars franchise.
When Han Solo (Harrison Ford, The Age of Adaline) surveys the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, he does so with visible joy and wonder. As his eyes rove over his ship for the first time in decades, his weathered face can't mask his happiness. It's a brief yet powerful and poignant moment, showing the smuggler's roguish demeanour laced with a rare splash of excitement. His smiling countenance isn't just a reflection of his own state; those watching likely share the same expression.
That's writer/director J.J. Abrams' (Star Trek Into Darkness) obvious intention, tasked as he is with continuing the beloved Star Wars franchise 32 years after the initial three films and ten years after the subsequent prequel trilogy. It is far from an easy assignment; affection lingers for the former, alongside anxiousness in the wake of the disappointing latter. Thankfully, the series' seventh and best movie to date earns the enthusiastic response it clearly seeks, with Han's touching early scene emblematic of the perceptive effort that follows. With a keen desire to balance the past with the present, valuing the same lived-in look and feel that endeared the original features to audiences, and absent a babbling CGI creature and any debates about trade embargoes, The Force Awakens dives back into treasured territory with a smooth landing.
Cue another introductory text crawl and another chapter of the space-set soap opera, as the plight of Han, his hirsute offsider Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew, Killer Ink), and princess turned general Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher, TV's Catastrophe) intersects with fighter pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, Show Me A Hero), scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley, Scrawl), and stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega, 24: Live Another Day). Cue the return of Star Wars' recurrent thematic concern with the troubles of family, contemplating both bonds of blood and connections of choice, whether through firm friendships forged in extreme circumstances or through pledging allegiance to a common cause. Representing the resistance, the group attempts to fend off a new military might called the First Order. Their chief adversary is the black-clad, helmet-wearing Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, While We're Young), who is determined to track down the last remaining Jedi, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, Kingsman: The Secret Service).
That chases, scrambles, shootouts and battles all result is hardly surprising, nor is the inclusion of droids, death-causing weapons, dusty bars, desert planets, snowy bases, sad events and realisations, big revelations or the conflict between the light and dark sides of the Force. And though much of The Force Awakens dallies with the expected, owing a considerable narrative debt to Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, the film still boasts ample tricks up it sleeves. Ostensibly retracing the footsteps of one of its predecessors gives the feature its story and structure, as well as demonstrating its resolve not just to highlight the old but also to blend it with the new. Every dip into existing mythology and tip of the hat to an iconic aspect of the long-running saga, be it a repeated line, mirrored pose or aped situation, further entrenches the movie's new characters in a march towards the future of the series. While there's no escaping the sense of déjà vu that results from the return of recognisable figures, the reignited war between the factions of good and evil, and the revisiting of well-worn roles and dynamics, there's no avoiding the spark of hope that's equally present.
Indeed, it's an approach Abrams is slowly making his own, his two-film reboot of Star Trek and his Spielberg tribute Super 8 similarly looking forward while nodding backwards. As a writer with co-scribe Lawrence Kasdan (who co-scripted Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back and Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi), tinkering with a screenplay first written by Michael Arndt (A Walk in the Woods), he harnesses the glee of nostalgia but avoids a winking, knowing attitude. As a director, he mixes his own vibrant flourishes with the filmmaking language of the Star Wars universe, casting fond yet fresh eyes over a much-awaited homecoming. Aesthetically, repeated sights, sounds, John Williams' score and sequences of easily foreseeable spectacle ensure callbacks to prior instalments make themselves known, as intermingled with Abrams' stamp; think wipe transitions cutting to shots gleaming with lens flare. A film with both subtlety and personality results, a description not often directed towards the franchise, and manifesting not only in the treatment of the tale or the appearance and acoustics of the feature, but in the efforts of its stars.
Ford and Fisher's engaged and astute turns, showing the weight not just of their on-screen personas but of almost forty years of dealing with the off-screen circus that has accompanied their roles, help anchor The Force Awakens. However, just as Han and Leia aren't the narrative's only VIPs, their performances aren't the film's only standouts. Thrust into the foreground of the action, Ridley's Rey provides the series with its best example of a conflicted hero yet, while the arc traversed by Boyega's Finn showcases the burden of compliance as well as choice, with both actors deftly navigating territory teeming with several layers of subversion and symbolism. Though required to fit into more clear-cut slots, Isaac's charismatic Poe and Driver's petulant Ren still teem with nuance, their characters never played as cartoonish.
Again, that texture and depth isn't something always found in features focused on speeding space ships and buzzing lightsabers, let alone in a blockbuster that prolongs perhaps the biggest sci-fi franchise ever. The Force Awakens adapts elements that made its forebears work to flesh out a thoughtful, thrilling, fun and finessed space for this next chapter and for more intergalactic adventure stories come — and that's enough to put a smile on any viewer's face.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens
Director: J.J. Abrams
USA, 2015, 135 mins
Release date: 17 December